I have this noisy baby…

She likes to scream!  And I mean, SCREAM!  A high-pitched, piercing scream that drives right through to your bones.  It makes me wince, and is a source of anxiety for me.  It has me a bit stumped if I’m honest.  Up to now, I’ve been able to communicate verbally and non-verbally with my 11-month old (she knows sign language for ‘milk’, and has made up her own signs for most other things).  When she was a tiny baby, I even worked out the language of her cries, and I could tell the difference between the sound she made when she cried for food to any other cry she made.  But I haven’t quite managed to tune into the scream, perhaps because I am trying too hard to tune out..?

I might be getting close though.  It is somewhere in between frustration and attention-seeking I think.  It happens mostly when she is restricted; car seat, pram, highchair.  Add any of those situations to occasions when she doesn’t have my full, undivided attention, and you can multiply the decibels tenfold.  So, you can imagine how I feel if I’ve driven into town (car seat), walked to a coffee shop (pram) and sat down (highchair) for coffee with a friend (divided attention)!  I am living off my nerves!  That said, I keep telling myself that this is temporary.  She will soon learn to communicate more effectively, and the need to scream will lessen.  And as she starts to settle down in this new and amazing world she has discovered at speed as she commando-crawls across my wooden floors, I will be able to allow her more freedom.  Soon she might be allowed to sit on a normal chair, stand, walk a little, so as not to feel imprisoned by a 3-point harness.  Until then, I have to accept it, and perhaps try and work out how to help her break the habit. That’s the hard part.

Although, saying that, it’s not the hardest part.  Oh no, the hardest part is trying to deal with the noise that my child has decided best fits to articulate her thoughts when surrounded by selfish, insensitive, intolerant human beings who either never had children of their own, had perfect children, or who can’t remember what having small children is like.  Yes, that is the hardest part.

I’d like to address the above described human beings, if I may be so bold.  Perhaps you will need to share this blog post on social media to make sure it reaches the right audience; if you’re reading my blog I am most sure you would not be one of those people.  So here goes…

Dear Intolerant,

I know my daughter’s screaming is loud, and intrusive, and downright irritating.  I feel it too.  Except I feel it in a way that you will never come close to, because she is mine.  I carried her in my body for 9 months, and I went through 3-days of induced labour hell to bring her into this world.  When I beheld that little face staring up at me from the hospital bed (yes, I was on all fours like some kind of wild beast!), I had no idea that she would develop this rather annoying habit.  I could do without it too.  Don’t you think I would prefer to have one of those babies who just sits in their pram without making a sound so that I can engage in good old fashioned chatter with one of my girlfriends over a caramel latte?  Of course I do! Don’t you think that I don’t wish I wasn’t such a prig about dummies (not that my babies have ever been able to take to one when I’ve tried)?    

Do you think I can’t hear it? That every screech doesn’t churn me up so much that inside I too am screaming? Do you know the embarrassment I feel every time that sound leaves her tiny lips, or how I squirm in my seat at the thought that she is spoiling the experience for everyone else?  Well, trust me, I hear it. And I feel it.  And it makes me want to run.  But let me tell you this; seeing the looks on your faces, watching you put your fingers to your ears, seeing your shoulders scrunch up with tension with each shrill squeak, feeling your head snap in our direction and hearing you mutter “Oh for goodness sake!”, or “What a naughty thing!” to your friends not only makes me want to run, but makes me want to run and hide and never come out again.  

When you look at me with irritation, and not compassion.  When you say cruel things about my baby, without understanding.  Those things hurt me to my core.  I can’t expect you to love my little girl like I do, but know how much it hurts to think that others are thinking ill of her because she has learned to vocalise her frustration.  She is an 11-month old baby. She loves to crawl.  She loves to sit surrounded by bright and noisy plastic things that make her smile. She loves the challenge of that piece of furniture that looms like Everest, yet she can conquer it in one pull on those little arms of hers; the pride in her face when she makes it to the summit is something us grown ups have long since forgotten how to show.  She doesn’t particularly like being cooped up in a pram, strapped in because the floor isn’t safe or clean enough for her to roam.  I hear your unuttered thoughts, “Take her to a baby group then, and not our [insert favourite venue]” Oh, how I would love the normalcy of a playgroup right now. Where I could sip a cup of tea with likeminded mums whilst our children play happily in the soft play area.  Except I can’t.  I can’t because my child takes a drug that puts her at risk of serious illness (perhaps even death) if she comes into contact with certain childhood illnesses, so until her immune system is able to accept the relevant vaccines, a play area is the last place you will find us.  

“So, stay at home then, if that’s where she is happy.” Yes! Yes! That’s the answer. You’re quite right of course – she is happiest when at home with her toys and her freedom.  But what about me?  What about my needs?  Most days I do exactly that; stay home and entertain my little girl, or stay close by while she entertains herself.  It’s lonely.  Days go by when the only adult interaction I have had has been via Facebook.  So when that invite for a coffee comes in, with the opportunity to get out in the fresh air and meet another human being and talk, of course I am going to take it.  It is th antidote to my depression.

“Plan your time better! Go out when she naps!” Oh yes, another brilliant suggestion.  Except that I have this clockwork baby, that since spending 6 weeks laid on her back in a hospital cot has slept from 6pm to 8am without a murmur.  The trade off being that she is awake and switched on for pretty much all of the daytime hours.  Once there was a chance that she wouldn’t be here at all, so I’m happy to take the trade.

You see, this baby who looks like butter wouldn’t melt and screams like a fiend, has been through more in her little life than I have had to contend with in my 41 years.  And she has achieved more than most of us will in a lifetime.  She is an inspiration, and she is my little miracle.  And me?  Well, I suffer with anxiety on account of having been through the trauma of seeing my 7-week old baby get sicker and sicker until eventually a broken heart confirmed she had been struck by a rare disease with a penchant for the coronaries.  I haven’t dealt with that yet; these things take time.  But I am dealing with it, and for all you know that coffee I am drinking is the first I’ve had all day because that morning I went to my PTSD counselling straight after dropping the older kids at school.  

I remember the silence of the first few weeks of my daughter’s illness.  It’s a silence that will haunt me forever.  When I feel irritation at that scream, I feel ashamed for disliking a single bit of my little girl.  Sadly, the anxiety is making it difficult for me to see through the scream to the child, to understand what she needs.  But I cannot hide us away from the world.  She is bright as a button.  She has got things worked out that a child her age shouldn’t be able to figure just yet! So of course she is going to scream when I try to stifle her need to move, explore, discover and learn.  

I am not asking you not to feel annoyed; I have no control over that.  I’m just asking that you search deep inside for some compassion.  You have no idea what journey a person has been on.  You have no idea what a person is struggling with right now.  I have no idea what you might be struggling with right now either, which is why I will always look at you with kindness and a smile.  If you knew that I go home and cry after an encounter with someone like you, would you act differently next time…?

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A Recipe for Disaster

So it seems I am suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder with a nice deep filling of depression, topped with a scattering of anxiety sprinkles.  If I were a cake, I’d be a fruitcake.

I was thinking this morning, after I left my second Cognitive Behavioural Therapy session, about what mental illness looks like.  What does someone suffering with mental illness look like?   I guess they look haggard and worn, frayed around the edges.  Scruffy, definitely; they wouldn’t have washed in weeks.  Tired, with dark purple circles under those sad eyes.  Hair scraped back in a ponytail in an attempt to disguise the oil slick it has become from days of neglect.  Shoulders drooping, head hanging down, slow lumbering gait where others confidently tread.  Yes, I reckon that’s about right.  Except it’s rare that you would get a real close look at one, because they’ll be under a duvet, or rocking in a corner; the lesser spotted hermit

Sometimes, mental illness looks like this…

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“Nooo!” I hear you exclaim.  “She can’t be depressed! Look at her, she’s smiling.  And I know she isn’t depressed, because she lives in that nice house with those three gorgeous kids.  Anyhow, I saw her in the Wine Bar last week and she looked like she was having a great time!”

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people suffering with a mental illness who meet the description above.  I’ve been there myself, duvet pulled up over my head, praying for it to be bedtime again.  But this time, it’s not like that.  Mostly I look like the woman in the picture.  Sometimes that face has to be painted on, that smile fixed in place with staples invisible to the naked eye.  Other times it’s real, and I feel real joy.  Sometimes, behind closed doors, when nobody is watching, I lay curled up in the corner of the sofa and cry.  I could cry right up to 3pm, then paint that face on and pass pleasantries with you in the school playground at pick up time.  Being a great actress comes with the territory.

I don’t want you to think that I am fake.  I’m possibly one of the least fake people you will meet.  It might be an effort to put on that smile sometimes, but I am generally a very sociable person and if I didn’t feel like smiling before we started talking, it’s very likely that I will be genuinely smiling by the time we part company.  I’m like that; people lift me.

And suffering with depression, either long-term or temporary, doesn’t mean that I am miserable all of the time.  In some ways, whilst this illness can be debilitating, I think I am one of the lucky ones.  I am very tuned in to my thoughts and emotions.  When I suffered with post-natal depression after my first daughter was born (nearly 12 years ago now), it was different.  I was severely depressed.  I believed that my husband’s family wanted to get me sectioned so they could have my daughter all to themselves.  I considered leaving, and telling nobody where I was going; figured I’d go live in some little hut by a lake in the Outer Hebrides or somewhere.  I thought everyone would be better off without me, and I would be better off without them.  On my worst days, I did not recognise myself in photographs.   And on worse days than that, I actually contemplated how much easier life would be if my daughter could just be gone

I’ve always been a sensitive, thoughtful soul.  I guess I was predisposed to this kind of malady.  In my teens, my old bedroom at home was painted black and I wrote a lot of poetry.  I’ve never found it hard to cry.  I think I’ve cried an ocean in my years on this Earth.  I don’t believe I had ever been depressed before my experience with PND.  A bit of low self-esteem maybe, but not depressed.  But PND altered me; it’s like a part of me was broken that could never be repaired, and was the catalyst for years of on-and-off suffering with various mental health issues.  The last 12 years have been on the whole great, though peppered with periods of counselling, cognitive therapy and anti-depressants.  The last time I was prescribed anti-depressants was when I was pregnant with my youngest daughter.  The only thing that stopped me taking them was the risk of congenital heart defects for my baby; those of you that follow Freya’s Story will appreciate the irony in that.

Mental illness covers a whole spectrum of serious disorders in a person’s behaviour or thinking, with over 200 different conditions to choose from. Now, that was a bad choice of words; this isn’t something anyone chooses.  But you get my drift.  And although many people will suffer, with or without a diagnosis, with the same conditions all over the globe, the degree to which they suffer will vary with every individual. What I am going through this time is very different to anything I have suffered with before.  Firstly, the post-traumatic element is new; I hadn’t faced any real trauma before my daughter was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness last year, so that’s a first for me.  The treatment I am receiving is specifically designed to expel the flashbacks and help my brain to process the memories that have got a little lodged on their way to my long-term memory.  The depression isn’t new, however it has been nicely disguised, hiding in the shadows of the PTSD, waiting for the right moment to strike.  It felt now was a good time.  And then there’s the anxiety, and oh boy ain’t that a treasure!

So, just how much fun is it to live with me these days?  I guess you could ask my husband or my kids, but like I said, I’m pretty in tune with my thoughts, emotions and behaviour to give you a pretty honest view of that.

I’ve talked about PTSD before.  I’ve shared some of the flashbacks and intrusive memories that I have suffered since my daughter was diagnosed with Kawasaki Disease last June.  I’ve told you that sometimes, when I look at Freya for long enough, her face morphs into the sad, scared, sick little baby that pleaded with me with her eyes from a hospital cot.  I was embarrassed by the diagnosis.  You associate it with war veterans.  But, it does happen to people who have suffered a critical illness, or in my case watched a child suffer.  There’s a big difference between a flashback and a bad memory.  We all have bad memories from time to time; a smell that reminds us of our first love, a song that can recall memories of a lost loved one, events that remind you of the time you were badly beaten up at school by that one girl in your GCSE year (https://bluemama.co.uk/2014/12/01/one-girl-one-day/).  Bad memories I can deal with.  They are long-term memories, and as such when recalled the emotion doesn’t hit you with the same intensity that it did at the time.

A flashback puts you right back in the original situation, and all the components of that memory – the emotions, the sounds, the smells, the physical surroundings – are replicated with all the intensity of the event itself.  Apparently when these happen, I have to tell my inner child, the victim, that it is ok for them to remember, but that I will help them through it.  I know, right?!  But joking aside, the tips I have been given have worked, and I haven’t had what I would call a ‘real’ flashback for a little while now.  Removing the spare cot from our room was a stellar move and my brain no longer keeps me up until the wee hours to avoid going to bed.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that specifically focusses on trauma, exercises ‘mindfulness’ to overcome that trauma by training your brain to accept the thought, but to prevent it from lingering by focussing your attention on how the thoughts made you feel, rather than the memory itself.  I’m sure I’ve just understated the treatment completely, but that’s it in layman’s terms.  And it actually seems to be working.  We haven’t yet worked through the key reason for my condition (Freya’s illness), instead we are working through three other life events which evoke a particularly poignant memory (good or bad).  The idea being that you practice the techniques on some more dormant memories, so that by the time you reach the biggie, you’re ready for a fight.  Today we practised the technique on the memory of the death of my grandfather.  I’ve been told not to reflect on that outside of the sessions, so I shall leave that there.

The depression is different again, and kind of fills in the spaces between the PTSD symptoms.  It’s a general feeling of low mood, varying in intensity depending on the day, the hour, the situation.  I can’t describe it any better than it being like a dark cloud permanently looming above my head, casting a shadow over me.  The good thing about clouds, is that sometimes they shift a little in the breeze.  A strong wind can brush them off completely for a time.  And the sun sometimes manages to break through and cast a beacon of light upon my path.  In some ways, I have learned to control the weather.  In the PND years, I couldn’t have done that.  But as I have said, I am more self-aware now.  I know that even if all I want to do it bury my head under that duvet, I have to choose another way.  Having kids kind of forces my hand.  With my firstborn, I didn’t have to be anywhere, so it was far too easy to stay in my pyjamas all day and wallow in sorrow.  I know some victims of mental illness find themselves in that place, regardless of their personal circumstances.  Luckily, this hasn’t taken all of me, and I do function on a pretty normal level most of the time.

How does depression affect me?  Well, I go a bit into myself sometimes.  I think a lot.  I cry a lot, not always for any reason.  I question my capabilities as a mother, as a wife, as a person generally.  I lose sight of my self-worth.  I retreat from people when I feel hard done to, and the depression makes sure that the further I retreat, the higher the wall becomes.  I have automatic negative thoughts (‘Ant’ – you might have met her in previous blogs.  She looks a little bit like me, but a lot like that girl that beat me up in my GCSE year.  Pretty girl, likes to stick the boot in now and again).  My thoughts tend towards the catastrophic.  And I get a bit hung up on signs.  Numbers, magpies, white feathers, a necklace breaking; all signs of impending doom for me or my relationships.  On a good day, it doesn’t affect me at all.  No more than a grey cloud hovering above, threatening rain, but not quite managing to defeat the sunshine.  I’m stronger than I think I am.

For a more insightful description of how depression feels, I don’t think there is anyone that has done it better than The Black Dog Institute when they put out this video on You Tube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiCrniLQGY).

And lastly there’s that little treasure, anxiety.  That’s a whole new ball game.  Aside from the nasty flashbacks, I have found the anxiety the most debilitating and damaging of all.  The Mind website provides a pretty comprehensive list of the symptoms of anxiety, so I thought sharing that was as good as any list I could provide (http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/anxiety-symptoms/#.VsTInsexrjI)

Physical sensations: Psychological sensations:
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • tense muscles and headaches
  • pins and needles
  • feeling light headed or dizzy
  • faster breathing
  • sweating or hot flushes
  • a fast, thumping or irregular heart beat
  • raised blood pressure
  • difficulty sleeping
  • needing the toilet more frequently, or less frequently
  • churning in the pit of your stomach
  • experiencing panic attacks
  • feeling tense, nervous and on edge
  • having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
  • feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down
  • feeling like other people can see you’re anxious and are looking at you
  • feeling your mind is really busy with thoughts
  • dwelling on negative experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again (this is called rumination)
  • feeling restless and not being able to concentrate
  • feeling numb

That’s how I feel a lot of the time.  Add to that the fact that I have developed a hypersensitivity to certain sounds, which make me want to explode (want to? You do Jo!) and I’m pretty much a coiled spring of anxious tension from dawn ’til dusk.  You can imagine how fun it must be for my husband these days!

But.  And it’s a big but. It’s not all bad.  I am that girl in the photograph.  I do smile, and quite often that smile manages to reach all the way up to my eyes.  I want to do things, see people, have fun.  I like to escape the confines of my daily life sometimes.  I want to be happy.  I don’t want to cry, or shout, or feel inadequate.    I want my family to love me, not to worry about me or look at me with judgement when I fly off the handle for what seems like no reason at all to them.  I have things I want to achieve, places I want to go.  For now, I am giving the counselling route a try.  If things don’t get any easier anytime soon, I will consider medication.

No journey with mental illness is easy.  Some might be easier than others, and I am open to treatment and very self-aware.  I know that right now I have feelings that could result in life-altering decisions.  I also know that those feelings might not be real, and until the fog lifts I will hold those thoughts.  Thoughts are not facts.

To anyone who has ever suffered, or is suffering still, I hope you find your own way to mend.  There is help, but it can often be hard to ask for it, sometimes even harder to find.  I talk candidly about myself and my experiences now.  I haven’t always.  When I started this blog I was too afraid to make it public for fear of judgement.  But this last year has taught me some lessons about not holding back, so now my heart is firmly on my sleeve for all to see.  Judge, don’t judge.  It’s not important to me anymore.  And if I ever offend with a too glib portrayal of mental illness, please know that a) I only describe what mental illness means to me, how it has affected me, and b) that humour has often been my way of handling the most negative of situations.

One in four people will suffer with a form of mental illness in any given year.  Take a look round you, at your family, your friends.  If it’s not you, it could be one of them.  Be kind, always, because you never know what personal struggles other people may be facing, even when they seem to be wearing a smile.

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Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bluemamablog and if you are interested in learning more about Freya’s Story and Kawasaki Disease, you can visit www.facebook.com/freyasstory 🙂

 

 

All I need

You are all I need Peanut.  Sure, there are other people that make me happy, but no-one has the power to make the sun shine through the rain like you do.  For me, you have become a symbol of strength and love, and a living example to all of us that we really should grab this life with everything we’ve got, because there really are no guarantees.

Quite often that makes me sad.  I can’t help but wonder what your future holds; sometimes I wish I had a crystal ball so I could see your life unfold and be happy that this thing isn’t going to get you one day.  But I guess there’s no fun in that is there?  So I have to hold on to hope.

You have a cardiology appointment next week, sweetheart.  I always find myself a little more melancholy than normal, and a bit more anxious that I usually am, as the date approaches.  The problem with me, is that I like to be in control.  And this most definitely does not allow for me to have control.  None.  I don’t expect the appointment to give me any surprises.  Not bad ones anyway.  Your condition, if it gets worse, is unlikely to get worse any time soon.  We may even be blessed with improvement, but let’s not jinx things, eh?  The best I can hope for is no change.  And even then, it’s a limited view.  What’s frightening is that we only know what we can see.  An echocardiogram can only show us about 3mm into your arteries.  Beyond that you need an MRI scan, but they have no plans to go looking yet.  I wonder why?  Maybe because you are so young, it would be preferable not to sedate you. I have to remind myself that the only reason you didn’t need to be sedated for your last MRI was because you were too sick to care.

I think, to all intents and purposes, we could be bold enough to say you are out of the woods for now.  Can I say that?  Should I say that?  The scientific part of my brain keeps telling me that the only thing that can cause you any problems is biology; my words will not be the cause.  Thoughts are not facts.  For now, I have two questions for the Cardiologist.  “What will I need to do throughout her life to protect her heart?”  and “Remember when you took me in a room and told me about the risk of a coronary aneurysm rupture, and how you told me that you could do nothing to prevent it, and that if it happened she would be gone?  Well, do you think that is a risk now?” Let’s see if we can get some questions answered next week shall we? So you will need to behave yourself.  You won’t! You’ve been trying to take over the echo since all this started; next week you are going to be rolling, and grabbing, and trying to crawl off the table!  Things just got interesting!

So it’s just dawned on me that I never had one of those baby books, the kind where you write all the milestones down.  To be honest, I had books with your brother and sister, but the novelty wore off a few weeks in and there are two half-finished (half-started?) baby record books gathering dust in the loft.  And then I thought I could do it here.  So let’s see, what can I tell you about you….

You have been sitting up for a while now.  For some time it seemed like you were never going to get there, but you did.  Your preferred mode of transport continues to be the ‘commando crawl‘ – you’d be fantastic on one of those military assault courses! And you’re fast Peanut, real fast! When you spot something you want, you can be at your target in a nanosecond.  I have to be on full alert – generally the thing you spot is something you shouldn’t have and everything goes in your mouth.  When I thought I’d cleaned up all the pine needles from the Christmas tree, you still somehow manage to find them.  And eat them.

You have a real sense of fun.  You are going to be like your brother; full of mischief.  You are always doing something, always busy.  You’ve just started getting up on your knees too, which means more of the world is within your reach, and I can see how exciting that is for you.  You are always in my kitchen cupboards, always pulling books off the bookshelves, always finding the one thing amongst all the other things that you are not allowed to have.  You are going to keep me busy!

You have a few words in your vocabulary.  “Daddy” has been a favourite for some time.  There’s something very cruel about ‘dadadadada’ being the easiest sound for a baby to make.  You’ve said a clear as a bell “Mama” once.  It was magic.  You’ve not said it since.  Your absolute favourite is “Uh-oh”, which was remarkable when you first said it because it alerted me to the fact that you had dropped something, like that time you dropped your toy in Marks and Spencer and I wondered why you wouldn’t stop saying “Uh-oh”.  Now it seems that “Uh-oh” is a catchall word for everything.  I think it means you are hungry, thirsty, tired, sad, angry, happy…it’s a one word fits all kind of thing!  I’ve been able to make out a few other discernible words; doggy, dinner, bye-bye.  You know your sister.  She’s Eliza.  That’s “a-la-la” to you.

And you laugh sweetheart, you really laugh.  Just a couple of weeks ago, we needed to tickle you to incite a giggle.  Now you laugh at everything and everyone! You laugh at trees and flowers, birds and cats, me, your dinner, everything! Just the sight of those tickling fingers coming your way and you are reduced to an uncontrollable cackle.  You see joy in most things, and you are slowly teaching me to do the same.

But, it isn’t all hearts and flowers my little cherub.  There is one thing that is currently driving me crazy, and that’s the scream! You have developed a squeal that would rival any dolphin, and brings half the neighbourhood’s dogs to our doorstep.  I think, roughly translated, it means “Hey, you, why are you not giving me your 100% total undivided attention right at this very second and every second after it?” but I don’t talk baby, so who knows if I’ve got that right.  Most mums could probably ignore it.  Unfortunately, I suffer with anxiety, and have real trouble with noise, so that little scream goes right through me and rings in my ears.  Let’s hope it passes soon (either the screaming or the anxiety – both would be nice).

You do still hold the title of ‘Epic Sleeper’, and if I didn’t know you were real I would start to wonder if you were some kind of clockwork toy.  I’ve looked for the key, I can’t find one.  The daylight hours are short with you Pickle.  You wake around 7am (sometimes later), nap for anything up to 2 hours at about 10am, and from 4pm to 6pm your constant squawking acts as a reminder that it is nearly bedtime.  6pm comes, you’re milk-drunk and sleepy and off you pop to bed, and we don’t hear a peep from you ’til morning.  So, on a 2-hour-nap day, I figure we get about 9 hours of you.  The thought of going back to work and that becoming 1 hour is unfathomable.

I don’t know if you will ever remember this time in your life.  I hope you don’t. Your first year has been blighted with illness, fear, hospitals, and me.  And when I say me, I don’t mean that I’m not a good mum to you.   I shout sometimes because the anxiety builds up inside my like gas in a pop bottle, and sometimes your brother or your sister, or a noise, or a setback, shakes me up just a little too much and the lid blows off.  And I am often sad.  I cry.  A lot.  I can’t tell you that I love you without tears pricking my eyes; I hope you don’t grow up associating love with sadness.  Sometimes when I look at you for too long, your face becomes the face of that tiny baby pleading with me with her eyes.  I don’t sleep that well either, because I’m always straining to hear you breathing on the monitor.  When I wake, it feels like I have slept holding my breath, and I am frozen in my bed until I hear a shuffle or a snuffle from you.  I am sure all this will pass, and I am getting help for it so that I can get this under control before you do start to notice that mummy is always sad.

It is lucky, then, that I adore you.  You are a pleasure to be around (which is lucky indeed, as you are the only person I see very much of!).  If  you were a different baby, I reckon I’d have cracked up by now.   But you, my dearest Freya, are the light in the darkest of days.  Sometimes, you look at me with those ocean deep eyes, and it’s like your very soul is speaking to me; “I’m gonna be ok mummy.”  

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An Exercise in Mindfulness

mindfulness
ˈmʌɪn(d)f(ʊ)lnəs/
noun
  1.  the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
  2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

(Source:Google)

The thing is with this kind of stuff is that it all sounds a bit new age, off in a forest finding yourself whilst hugging a tree, doesn’t it?  Well it does to me anyway.  But I was given my homework at the last session (my first session) so I thought I should play along if I really wanted to beat this thing.  The counsellor gave me a pile of papers last week, and had ticked a number of the exercises that she wanted me to practice.  I am undergoing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to deal with trauma; I apparently have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  I say apparently, because to be honest I’m pretty embarrassed with the diagnosis.  I mean, you hear the word PTSD and are immediately met with images of soldiers on the frontline in Afghanistan, or firefighters coming out of the Twin Towers.  I have never once in my life imagined a normal mum, with a normal life, who can’t shake off the events of the last year when her daughter was diagnosed with a serious illness.   And that is who I am (except maybe less stress on the ‘normal’).

Anyway, I shared an image on my social media pages that I created last week (my brain), designed to illustrate what goes on in the mind when it’s owner has a bit of a tough time handling a traumatic event.  Although I don’t think I am worthy of the PTSD diagnosis, I do understand what is going on up there at the minute and it helped me to show it in a diagram.  The long and short of it (no pun intended) is that the events of last year have become too big for my brain to process.  Those short-term memories should have made their way down into the long-term memory by now, but they’ve got themselves stuck.  And because they are stuck in my short-term memory, they are there, all the time; a constant reminder of those dark, dark days.  Sometimes they are that there, that it feels like they are here.   Now let me tell you there is a massive difference between recalling a painful memory, and intrusive memories and flashbacks.  I was ‘blessed’ with a pretty remarkable memory, particularly for words.  I can recite poetry that I’ve not read in years, I can recall the exact way I felt when I was thirteen years old and my Grandad passed away, and yes dear Husband, I can remember what was said in that argument in 1998.  I don’t seem to be able to let go of things that have evoked a strong emotional response.  Not a bad thing, unless you feel most things with the intensity of a Tsunami, in which case you find yourself with a hell of a lot of stuff up there.  But I digress slightly.

I’d say the main difference between a memory and a flashback is the intensity of the emotional response.  Of course we all feel a little sad when we recall a loss, or a particularly difficult time in our lives.  But when those events have been properly processed, they evoke just a small amount of the emotion originally felt.  When those events haven’t been correctly processed because the brain just couldn’t manage the overwhelming task, they are recalled with all the strength of emotion that was felt the moment that it happened.  I think it might help (me more than anyone, perhaps) if I tell you what kind of intrusive thoughts and/or flashbacks I am talking about.

Intrusive Thoughts

These vary from images that flash in front of my eyes when I am least expecting it (though not to be confused with a ‘flashback’ – you’ll see why later), to a little Voice of Doom in my head that likes to play Devil’s advocate with the ever-so-slightly-smaller Voice of Hope.  You might have heard me talk about ‘Ant‘ before (Automatic Negative Thoughts)?  Well she’s a whole other kettle of fish!  I don’t seem to hear much from her these days, but I often wonder if she is pulling the strings of the Voice of Doom.  Ok, so now I sound like I have multiple personality disorder, and whilst I do not profess to be particularly knowledgeable on that subject, I can confidently say that I do not! These parts of the brain exist in all of us, I just like to give them a name as we are so well acquainted.

So, let me give you a few examples.  

If you are old enough (that is, as old as me) then you might remember that 1980’s toy, the ViewMaster?  Hang on, I’ll find you a pic…Unknown.jpg…There you go.  When I close my eyes, it’s like an automatic ViewMaster, presenting snapshot after snapshot of memories.  Bad memories.  Mostly it’s Freya; lying in her hospital cot pleading at me with her eyes, gasping for breath, disappearing into the MRI tunnel or her eyes rolling into the back of her head as she was forced into sleep on an operating table.  The worst snapshot is the one of her lifeless, limp little body at the moment that I realised this was going to be bad.

Sometimes, it’s not Freya, but me that I see.  Like watching my own life through some kind of out of body experience.  That’s what happened when I went to bed last night.  Image after image of all the moments when I felt most frightened and most vulnerable during my 6-week incarceration courtesy of 3 of Yorkshire’s finest hospitals.  The moment the Cardiologist took me to a room and told me she couldn’t do anything to save Freya from the worst of risks.  The moment I tried to go back to the HDU, to my little girl, and slid down the wall because I couldn’t bear to take one more look at her if I was going to have to lose her.  The times when visiting hours were over and my lonely evenings began.  The long walk down those LGI corridors at 3am when my body betrayed my resolve to stay awake by Freya’s bedside all night (they wouldn’t let me sleep on the ward for that period).  And standing in the hospital Chapel doors, not really knowing why, but writing a prayer all-the-same; “Dear God, prove them wrong.”

Those are some of the things that I see when I close my eyes.  So I don’t.  I stay awake for as long as I can possibly keep my eyes open.  Partly because that means there are less hours for Freya to sleep ‘unsupervised’, partly because of what lies behind closed lids.

And then there are the thoughts.  The what ifs, buts and maybes.  I’ll be brushing Freya’s hair, and wonder whether she will have her brother’s curls…“What if you never see it?”  I’ll be listening to her gurgle and babble away in that special little language of hers and think about how I can’t wait to be able to chat with her…“As long as nothing bad happens before then.”  I swat those thoughts away like pesky flies, but the sneering tone lingers.  Every thought I have about the future is met with a voice warning me not to tempt fate.

Flashbacks

These are less common.  It’s hard to tell the difference between a flashback and an intrusive thought/memory sometimes.  I have mini ‘flashphoto’ moments at times.  I don’t know if you have ever seen that movie with Brad Pitt, Se7en?  <<Spoiler Alert>> There’s a scene right near the end when he opens the box and just for a split second you see an image of his wife’s head in the box.  It’s that quick, you don’t even know if you really saw it, and it’s only when you’ve seen it a few times that you start to expect it.  Well that happens to me with images of Freya, except sometimes the image sharpens until it has altered reality.  Just yesterday, I looked down at her little post-bath face framed by a fluffy white towel and was immediately taken back to the moment I first held her in my arms, wrapped in a hospital issue blanket.  Without any warning, a rush of sadness overwhelmed me and the tears that are always there at the brink started to fall.

I think for me, the differentiation between the intrusions and a flashback, is in both the intensity and their ability to alter reality.  The intrusive images are played to me one by one, like you would see with every click of that little red ViewMaster.  They are disturbing, upsetting and unnerving.  But I can shake my head and try to make them go away.  The flashbacks are different.  Whether it be seeing Freya’s face change right in front of my eyes to the point that I am again holding my sick child in my arms, to reliving a particular event, they steal into my life without warning and manage to transport me back in time to when it was all very real and very raw.  When the ‘real’ flashbacks happen, I am cold, rooted to the spot, I tremble, I sweat, my chest tightens and I can’t breathe.  And I cry, I cry a lot.

There have been a number of triggers for the ‘real’ flashbacks.  Mainly smells and sounds that take me right back to those weeks in the hospital.  The phone rings at the wrong time and it’s the monitors beeping incessantly to tell the nurses the IV has stopped running, again.  Freya’s bedtime toy starts to play it’s little tune in the middle of the night, and we’re right back there, in that cubicle, her eyes staring blankly at the glowing seahorse that soothes her to sleep.  I can’t sing a certain song, or hear certain pieces of music without being stopped in my tracks as my surroundings and environment change around me.  Having Freya’s old cot by the side of my bed is a major trigger.  The silhouette of the bars in the dim light of our bedroom at night; I find myself constantly checking the baby that isn’t there (she is in her own room now).

I feel like I am constantly being hijacked by my fears and my memories.  They don’t want to let me go, they don’t want me to let go of them.  And as warped as it might sound, I’m not sure if I want to let go of them… 

Letting Go

What does that actually mean?  You know what I am most scared of?  I’m scared of beating this, and forgetting.  Scared I’ll stop appreciating what we all went through and begin to take life for granted.  Scared that if I forget how it felt, I won’t fight to make sure Freya has the best life she can possibly have; that we all will.  And because I feel like my whole self has been defined by the events of the last year, I am scared that if I let it go completely I will not know who I am, and I will be lost.

But I do know that I have to let this go.  I have to open my mind to the treatment I am being offered.  I have to shift these things from my short-term memory down into the long, where they will never be forgotten, but where they will cease to have control over my life.

Treatment

Today I started the treatment in earnest.  During the session, I had to undertake a Mindfulness of Emotions exercise.  I was already crying before we started; I had been asked to think of 5 events in my life that had had either a positive or negative emotional effect upon me.  Always the over-thinker, I struggled to think of them and my mind went blank.  I thought of a couple of things – Grandad dying (bad), Eliza’s birth (bad), Finlay’s birth (good)… Nothing else would come, absolute blank.  Obviously the situation with Freya goes in there at number 5, but we had to agree to leave number 4 for next time.  I think the plan is that you practice the techniques whilst processing some old memories/events so that by the time you reach the biggie you are an expert in handling thoughts and emotions.  Something like that.

So, I sat in my chair opposite the therapist, and she handed me some paper towels to wipe my eyes (I have no idea why they don’t realise they might need tissues for these things!).  She told me to close my eyes, lay my feet flat on the floor and sit straight with my hands on my lap.  All I had to do was to sit still, feel my body in the chair, and when a thought came along I was to accept the emotion that it brought with it, and dismiss the thought. What actually happened was a full blown panic attack.  I felt the anxiety building as I sat there facing the counsellor with my eyes shut (did she not hear that I have an issue with that?!)  I was conscious that my feet wouldn’t stay still, and I was wringing the tissue in my hands.  Every inch of me wanted to get up and run, and it was one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever done.  When I stopped breathing, and then started gasping for breath (I know! Idiot!!) I had to open my eyes.  The counsellor had a chat with me about what had happened, and she said that I was trying to run from what I might see with my eyes closed, and we should start again.  This time I would face the window, so I might feel under less scrutiny.

The remaining 15 minutes of the exercise were tougher than I imagined.  But in that state of quiet awareness, I could actually see the thoughts arriving and feel the physical effects that those thoughts were having on my whole body.  It was intense, and surprising.  Sitting there in that state, I was acutely aware of how my body reacted to the thoughts as they intruded.  My toes were actually curling, my whole body squirmed, and my breathing became more rapid.  And then, of course there were the tears, but I never had that much of an issue producing those.  Sitting there allowing myself to feel the emotions whilst trying really hard to tell the thoughts to bugger off, I felt like one of those shove ha’penny machines at the amusement park.  A mind full of thoughts spilling over into my consciousness, causing the emotions to come rushing out in waves.  Towards the end I felt bruised.  But I did notice that within the last few minutes I began to notice the sounds around me, and no longer noticed the thoughts.  Cars going by the window, the scrape of a chair from the floor above, the buzzing of the PC on the desktop.  And as I noticed those noises, and the noises in my head began to quiet themselves, I felt my shoulders drop and I was still.

My homework is to practice that every day for at least 15 minutes.  As I am not sleeping, and am delaying bedtime, the counsellor suggested that I do the exercise in bed.  It’s like training your brain to accept thoughts without entertaining them, to feel the emotion that those thoughts evoke, but to focus on something else so that those emotions can be let go.  Right now, my thoughts are being overindulged.  They need putting on the naughty step, and I need to stop allowing them to dictate how I am going to live my life.

 

Wish me luck.

The Seven Deadly Sounds

So I am laid in bed wide awake at stupid o’clock and can’t get back to sleep because there is a snoreasaurus in the bed next to me. And as I lie here wanting to punch said snoring animal because it is driving me nuts, I get to thinking about the sensitivity and irritation that is caused by certain noises.  It must be one of the symptoms of my highly-strung personality, because I am sure most people do not feel the urge to kill rising upon hearing a certain noise!

  1. Snoring – obvious one I know, but this one has to be in the top spot.  I think it has something to do with timing – generally it is when I am trying to sleep, and when I am shattered but can’t sleep through the constant pig grunts that it fills me with despair!
  2. Chewing – the sound of anyone chewing drives me nuts. Doesn’t matter what they are chewing (some people have a particular aversion to people chewing gum), I feel my insides churning up and it is all I can do not to scream at the perpetrator! I think crunching fits into this category too.  Loud crunching of say, cereal, is enough to send me over the edge!
  3. Dripping tap – again another obvious one. We’ve got a leaky tap in the en suite that drip, drip, drips into the bath. If we go to bed and forget to close the bathroom door then I’m done for! If I wake up and that tap is dripping, there’s no going back to sleep for me. 
  4. Cold-related noises – I’m talking coughs, sneezes and sniffles. Wow, that’s a hot topic in this house at the minute with a husband and 2 children full of cold!! With every sniff I want to scream “blow your fekking nose will you!!!”.  Coughing annoys me if it is persistent, and I can’t help myself from barking “go get a drink for gods sake!!!” when it gets too much! Sneezes aren’t too bad, except that my husband has the most annoying attention-seeking-blow-your-head-off kind of sneeze that winds me up if I’m in the wrong kind of mood!!
  5. Buzzing. Not from creatures, but from electrical equipment mainly. We have a lamp that buzzes for some reason. My husband could never hear it, but even with the TV on I would be driven to distraction and have to switch the thing off. We have changed the bulb now, which seems to have rectified the problem.
  6. Whining. Kids. 2 of them. Hearing them whinge at each other and bicker (as siblings often do) drives me nuts!
  7. Clocks. The ticking kind. Again this is limited to the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep. If I sleep anywhere other than home and there is a ticking clock in the room, I have to remove it or bury it in a drawer somewhere.

There are probably more, so I may add to this at a later stage. For now, there are just the seven deadly sounds that could be enough to incite violence! And I am not a violent person at all. I guess my response to these sounds varies dependant on how much sleep I’ve had, and my mood at any given time. I’m sure someone somewhere could give this anxiety a name (other than me just being plain neurotic!).   For now, I’ve gone into the spare room to try and get some noise-free sleep 😴😴😴

Noise noise noise!

I don’t know if I’m tired, or what, but my God have I been irritable tonight! Every sound has been like fingernails down a blackboard. I found myself wanting to gag my 5-year old son! He never shuts up! He’s a lovely, lovely boy, but jeez does he know how to talk. He doesn’t have an off switch and there just doesn’t seem to be a single moment when he isn’t making some noise or other. I was glad to get him into bed tonight, even though he continued to chatter to himself for at least an hour once he was there.

Lying on the sofa, my eldest was splashing about in the bath. Every move she made went through me like a knife. I had to call her to tell her to wrap it up because I couldn’t take any more of it! And then into the lounge she trundles with a cup of milk and a biscuit. The cup she chose was a chinky China mug that holds a similarly chinky spoon in the handle. A chinky spoon chinking against the chinky handle of the chinky mug that chinks on the chinky glass coaster every time she picks it up or puts it down. Are you feeling my pain?! Add to that the crunch, munch, crunch of what must have been the crunchiest biscuit in the tin. Oh, and just for good measure, why not chuck in a dry little cough here and there whilst wriggling about on the beaniest bean bag we have! Time for bed dear daughter!

Husband is relatively quiet, although he’s laid on the sofa next to his favourite lamp which for some reason doesn’t seem to ring in his ears!! After getting him to turn it off and on again a few times, he finally concedes that the lamp is indeed making an annoying ringing sound which rivals any tinnitus attack and turns it off for good. Unfortunately he seems to have caught that dry little cough from our daughter and that hacks out every now again. Oh, and he seems to have particularly itchy feet this evening so keeps rubbing his socked feet together to deal with that little issue.

Wow! Even writing it down I realise how completely nuts I am about noise! I don’t think I’m like it all the time, but I guess today I am a bit more tired than usual. At times like this I realise that I am quite highly strung at times. If my best friend was here we would have a little giggle as I say “I’m living on my nerves!” 😂. Every single noise has physically affected me like someone clawing at my skin and I’ve found it hard not to scream out at them to stop! Glad I got the chance to get it off my chest here though, lol! I do hope my noise hasn’t caused you too much pain 😉